Unlike Namco, Konami, Atari, Midway, and, more recently, SEGA, Capcom has seemingly resisted the cynical urge to lovelessly cash-in on its retro glories from decades past. With Street Fighter 2 the sole representative on Xbox Live Arcade, it seemed only a matter of time before the Japanese giant got around to digitally distributing more of its revered back catalogue.
And so it has proven, with this week seeing the long-awaited release of a jazzed-up version of Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, or just Puzzle Fighter as we'll refer to it from here on. Originally released in arcades way back in 1996, this isn't just some unaltered shovelware, chucked out with zero care and attention. Effectively, it's the ultimate version of a true puzzle classic, combining everything from the arcade version and the Dreamcast edition and a few modern refinements to make it the definite article. For 800 points (Ł6.80) you can't really go wrong.
As Dan Whitehead noted in his recent PSP review of Capcom Puzzle World, "It is, quite simply, one of the greatest games ever made and a permanent fixture in my all-time top 10". So, er, he's going to be somewhat pleased at its arrival. He also rightly points out that, at first glance, it looks a bit like "a cheesy Tetris clone wearing Street Fighter clothes". It really does. In the classic Arcade mode, a pair of randomly coloured gems descend down a 12 block by 6 block rectangular play area, and it's your job to rotate them, guide them left or right and set them down wherever you see fit - usually with the aim of matching like with like and shattering them before your screen fills to the top. Simple? Well, not quite that simple.
The basic idea isn't so much to clear gems willy-nilly. Sure, stopping the screen filling up with gems is the primary concern, but, because the game is designed as a two player experience, it's all about thinking quickly and being decisive about when the time is right to shatter your gems. You might, for example, want to pair your gems up with others of the same colour in order to build bigger Power gems. The reason for this is that the more gems you smash at once, the more Counter gems are unleashed onto your opponent's play area, allowing you disrupt their own building plans and ensure that their screen fills up. The winner is ultimately the player who causes their opponent's play area to fill up to the top, so speed and planning is crucial.
To elaborate a little, Counter gems don't become solid, normal, smashable gems for five turns, and the only way to eliminate them before this is to place a like-coloured Crash gem next to them. In short, they're a pain in the butt, and so the more you can fire across to your opponent, the better. On the other hand, if you spend too long trying to build a gigantic Power gem, the more risk there is of being caught out yourself, so there's a fine risk-reward balance that makes the game hugely addictive, fun and exasperating in equal measures.
A fighting puzzle game? Surely not.
Like Dan the man (I bet he's sick to death of a lifetime of being called that) points out, the real key to success is taking the time to learn the Counter Gem patterns, which you select before the round commences. If you do manage to lay down the same pattern, you can effectively turn your opponent's attacks against them - especially powerful if you use the five-turn countdown to unleash enormous blocks onto their side. Equally worth mentioning, though, is the arrival of a diamond every 25 turns. This is particularly useful to know, because it enables you to destroy any block it lands on, and is quite capable of setting off a face-saving chain reaction if you find yourself up against it.
So, in addition to this already brilliant mode, this HD remix beefs up the replay value no end by throwing in modes previously added to the Dreamcast version: X mode, Y mode and Z mode. The latter two are particularly interesting to seasoned veterans, because they change some of the core rules of the game, effectively turning it into an entirely different thing. While X mode is merely a 'rebalanced' version of the classic mode (with different drop patterns and tweaked damage to 'level the playing field') Y mode, for instance, revolves around the principle that three-or-more-of-a-kind shatter, whether they're aligned in a row, a column or even a diagonal, while Z mode riffs on Tetris Attack by giving players control of a 2 by 2 cursor and tasking you with rotating pieces already on the play area. Whichever you go for, they're all ace in their own right. All in the same cheap package, it's irresistible if you're any kind of puzzle junkie.
On top of all this timeless goodness, the icing on the cake is the remodelled, sharpened-up graphics (with character art from Udon Comics), new special effects, online play in every mode, some evil achievements to go for, and, of course, online leaderboards. The real mark of greatness for a game like this, though, is just how much fun it is offline against the CPU. It's not even as if you need a pal for it to be fun. It's just a cracking little game that will be just as addictive in ten year's time as it was when it first came out. Puzzle Fighter is yet another reason to rejoice the growth in downloadable games, and regardless of whether you play it on the 360, the PS3, or on the recently issued PSP compilation Capcom Puzzle World, it's one of those games you really ought to have in your collection.
9 / 10